Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Fly Me to the Moon (orig. Un Plan Parfait) [2012]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13)  Fr. Dennis (4+ Stars)

IMDb listing
Allociné.fr* listing

Fly Me to the Moon (orig. Un Plan Parfait) [2012] [IMDb]  [AC]* (directed by Pascual Chaumeil [IMDb] [AC]* screenplay by Laurent Zeitoun [IMDb] [AC]* and Yoann Gromb [IMDb] [AC]* with collaboration by Béatrice Fournera [IMDb] [AC]*, story by Philippe Mechelen [IMDb] [AC]*) is a French language (English subtitled) romantic comedy that recently opened Chicago's 3rd Annual French Film Festival held at the Music Box Theater in Chicago and cosponsored by the French Diplomatic Mission in the United States.

The film begins with an upper middle class Parisian family hosting a recently dumped/divorced friend of theirs named Valérie (played by Laure Calarny [IMDb] [AC]*) for Christmas dinner.  After Valérie breaks down weeping at the dinner table, her host/best friend Corinne (played by Alice Pol [IMDb] [AC]*) tries to cheer her up, telling her that in her family "first marriages" were something of a curse going back (remember this is France ... ;-) four generations to her great-grandmother and that almost everyone since has ended-up, for one reason or another divorcing their first spouse.  (Apparently even Corinne was married now, apparently happily now, to her second husband Patrick (played by Jonathan Cohen [IMDb] [AC]*) but had to divorce some poor soul to get there).

"Well that's a terrible curse," Valérie replies.  Corinne agrees that indeed it has been a terrible burden.  She then proceeds to recount to Valérie the story of her own sister Isabelle (played by Diane Kruger [IMDb] [AC]*) and her 10 YEAR struggle to try to get around this terrible curse.  For while in "dental school," Isabelle "tragically" fell in love with the perfect guy, another dentist named Pierre (played by Robert Pagnol [IMDb] [AC]*).  Afraid to get married because then he'd be "the first spouse" and hence their relationship would be "doomed to fail," Isabelle insists that they just live together to keep the curse at bay.  So they settle down and live together for 10 YEARS quite happily settling into a happy if ordinary routine of a couple married in all by name.

However, as the ten year mark approached, not getting younger, Isabelle wanted a child (again, a "modern" couple...).  Here Pierre told her that they can't have a child out of wedlock because his mother would never forgive them.  If they wanted a child, they had to get married.

So they come to an impasse.  What to do?  Well that's then when Corinne and Isabelle come up with the "Perfect Plan" (which is the French title of the film):  What if Isabelle went somewhere (far...) "on vacation," married some random guy that she met there and then quickly divorced him.  Then she'd be free to marry the Perfect Pierre and live happily ever after.   But she'd have to "go far" to so that "no one would know her there" to pull this plan off.

So ... the next scene has Isabelle dressed in a stylish but very heavy white winter coat heading to a place where no Frenchman/woman of any sense would ever go ... to Scandinavia in the Winter ;-).  And on her flight to Copenhagen, she immediately runs into the perfect, "inconsequential schmuck" named Jean-Yves (played by Dany Boon) to make the plan work.  She looks at him as someone who's beneath her.  He looks at her "kinda out of his league" but somewhat surprised (the recent hair implants must have really worked ;-) ... he's JUST ADORABLE ;-) that she's talking to him.  And so he happily chats away on the flight while Isabelle tries, really, really hard not to roll (or even close... ;-) her eyes... but he'd be "perfect" for the plan.

When they get off at the plane at Copenhagen, Isabelle who's endured an hour of chatting with a guy she just wants to marry and dump, is shocked to find that Jean-Yves is NOT going to Scandinavia but is actually on his way to Kenya (WHO IN HIS RIGHT MIND WOULD FLY FROM PARIS NORTH TO COPENHAGEN IN THE WINTER ONLY TO FLY ALL THE WAY TO AFRICA AFTERWARDS?  Well Jean-Yves ;-).  So what to do now?  Isabelle decides that she's gonna get on the flight to Nairobi as well.  So she goes to the ticket counter and finds, of course, that Coach is long filled, but for an OBSCENE AMOUNT OF MONEY she could fly business class.  So what the heck (and remember, this is a romantic comedy ... not necessarily bounded by the limits of common sense), she buys the business class ticket so as to go to Kenya as well (all for the good of her future second marriage to the Perfect Guy Pierre).

She then runs into Jean-Yves at the gate.  "Oh, YOU'RE GOING TO NAIROBI AS WELL!" Jean Yves exclaims.  Going up to the ticket counter, to get his boarding pass, Isabelle acompanies him and asks the attendant if they could sit next to each other.  Rolling her eyes, the attendant tells her that he's (of course) flying coach while Isabelle (the attendant had just sold her the ridiculously expensive business class ticket) is not.  Isabelle then tells the attendant to just randomly bump somebody else up from coach to business class, that she'd really prefer coach.

Well when they randomly "bump someone up" to business class, guess who gets "bumped up"?  Jean-Yves! ;-).  So in the next scene, we see Jean-Yves, smiling from ear to ear playing with his fully reclinable seat control while sipping a tropical drink with a parasol, while we see Isabelle squashed between two really really tall Kenyan guys back in coach ;-).

They arrive in Nairobi.  Happy and clueless Jean-Yves happily hops onto a public transport bus (he's been to Kenya before ...), while Isabelle following him at a discrete but still stalkable distance (still wearing her stylish, but now really out of place heavy white winter coat ;-) hails a taxi which follows Jean-Yves' bus.  Jean Yves gets off said bus by a fairly nice touristy hotel, Isabelle's taxi pulls in soon after.  She enters after he checks in, and gets a room for herself soon afterwards.  Then she discretely "runs into him" again at the hotel.  Only he's acting kinda odd, looking like he's talking to himself.  What's going on?  It turns out that he's talking into a dictaphone, and actually he gets kinda irritated when she suddenly appears talking to him because she broke him in mid-sentence: The reason why he travels the way he does is that he apparently writes tourist guides for people in France.  Well that actually sounds kinda cool.  She asks if she can tag along.  He asks only that she "keep quiet" when he's talking into his little dictaphone... ;-).  Shrugging her shoulders, she does.

This actually becomes kinda interesting because at some point he rents a jeep and they ride-out to Mount Kilimanjaro.  There a number of adventures ensue ... including they nearly get eaten by a lion (a homage to Earnest Hemmingway ;-) and ... get their car stolen.  Walking back ... ;-) ... they come across a Meru village in the midst of a traditional communal marriage ceremony.  Following the procession of young people passing between two lines of solemnly assembled village elders, they find themselves "accidently married'!  Mission accomplished!  And the best part is, nice-guy ever-smiling Jean-Yves doesn't even feel himself particularly married and there appear to be no documents.  So ... she sidestepped "the curse" WITHOUT actually hurting anybody or going through a messy divorce... and after a few days of smiling "PG-rated" fun out there in and around Nairobi, Isabelle and ever-smilin' Jean-Yves part ways ;-)

... 'CEPT (and of course there's a 'cept ;-) when she flies home to Paris and Perfect-guy Pierre proposes to her soon afterwards, when she goes up to the Marriage Court there in Paris, she discovers that SOMEHOW "they" (the Marriage Court officials) KNOW that she was married out there in Kenya.  So now she has to look-up ever-smiling (and ever-traveling) Jean-Yves and get him to sign a divorce.

She catches up to him out in Moscow (the stylish white winter coat ends up being useful after-all ;-) ;-) and he's actually kinda hurt that she wants to divorce him even if he didn't really feel or realize that he was married to her.  So eventually he signs said divorce papers and walks off to a GIGANTIC (and actually LITERALLY "off the wall" monument to Yuri Gagarin ... ;-) to talk to his dictaphone about it ... and ... she kinda feels sorry for him ... and follows him as well.  He tells her that she "can go," that they were never really married and now they were divorced.  But she stays because she starts to realize that as corny as Jean-Yves was, he always actually SHOWED HER A GOOD TIME ;-).  Perfect Pierre did everything "perfectly" but being perfect, he was actually "kinda boring," while she honestly never ever knew what was going to come next with smiling Jean-Yves.

And leaving the GIGANTIC literally "off the wall" Moscow monument and its solemnly assembled wreath carrying soldiers still dressed in Soviet era style uniforms, he tells her that he has one last place to go ... to a nearby airport where the Russians offer moneyed tourists to experience the zero-gravity sensation of free-fall inside the plane JUST LIKE THE ASTRONAUTS/COSMONAUTS used to experience in their training exercises.  WHAT AN UNBELIEVABLE BLAST that was (and probably the inspiration for the English title of the film: "Fly me to the Moon" ;-).

After all this, Isabelle has a dilemma: Who to end-up with?  Perfect Pierre or smilin', somewhat corny but always unpredictable Jean-Yves?  I'm NOT going to say how it ends, but we find that this story serves the purpose of introducing Valérie to "the other guest" that the family was inviting to Christmas Dinner ;-)


* Rough (machine) translations of foreign language websites are generally most easily obtained using the Chrome browser.

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Monday, July 29, 2013

The To Do List [2013]

MPAA (R)  RE.com (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (2 Stars w. Parental Warning)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert.com (S. Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

To begin, The To Do List [2013] (written and directed by Maggie Carey), is not the end of the world, but it is a film that Parents with teenagers ought to know about and recognize as a DEFINITELY appropriately R-rated film (one that does warrant some discussion at home prior to deciding whether or not you'd want your teens to see the film.  And yes parents _at minimum_ read the rest of this review, and then make your teens squirm a bit (or even a lot ;-) prior to letting them see it).

I say this because the film, while in some sense certainly honest (otherwise I wouldn't be reviewing the film at all), is also intended to be provocative.  Set in Boise, Idaho in the early 1990s the film is about a "good girl" named Brandy Klark (played by Aubrey Plaza) apparently from a Mormon (hence tending toward the Conservative...) family who, just having graduated from High School as Valedictorian (1st in her class) had spent her high school years with "her head in her books" and thus was something of a neophyte with regards to "the ways of love." 

Initially, this doesn't bother her.  Even if her inexperience does subject her to some ridicule from her "more worldly" (and  less bookish) older sister named Amber (played by Rachel Bilson) and salt-of-the-earth BFFs Fiona (played by Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (played by Sarah Steele), initially she takes this in stride.  One can't be "an expert" in everything ... HOWEVER, on graduation night she's dragged by her two BFFs to a "real party" and there she encounters a hunky, tanned, long haired, guitar-strumming "college guy" named Rusty Waters (played by Scott Porter) and suddenly her having graduated "with the highest GPA ever" from her high school doesn't seem to matter anymore.  Brandy wants this guy.

But how to get a "guy like that" interested in "a girl like her?"  Well, "ever the student," good ole Brandy puts together a sexual "to do list" that "upon completion" she believes would hurdle her "into the league" of The Hunk.  Okay, who can honestly not relate to Brandy's insecurity / dilemma?  Or remember "back in the day" when THIS kind of problem was paramount in one's life?

Was her sexual "to do list" that made even her older "slut of the family" sister Amber and her more worldly BFF Fiona blush (as it would certainly make most Parents/Authority figures watching this film blush) "the way to go"?   Almost certainly not.  But I'm more or less positive that most of us would understand her insecurity.
But let me offer her a more modest and somewhat "shocking" alternative to her sexual "to do list"?  What if good ole Brandy "took up the guitar" instead?  What if she used her "research skills" to find / buy an old beat-up acoustic guitar, no doubt previously owned by a perpetually half-drunk, ever 5 o'clock shadowed, 30 something dude with a heart of gold but now with a wife, kids and "responsibility" (basically a somewhat more mature and _going somewhere_ version of the "pool guy" character played by Bill Hader in this film) who solemnly hands "Mable" over to the spritely Brandy, and wiping away tears, asking her to take "good care of her" ... and Brandy proceeding then to learn on her own "a chord or two" enough to play (poorly) 1-2 bars of some Sarah McGlaughflin song (popular at the time) in front of the hunky, dream-boated Rusty Waters and then _batting her eyes_ saying: "Oh gee, I'd LOOOOOVE to play this thing, but geeeeee... I can't. (Batting eyes again) Can you teach me?"  Honestly what "Rusty" in the world could resist that kind of a come on?  And Brandy would have certainly had Rusty for as long as she wanted without _any_ risk creating a child or contracting some, at minimum, terribly inconvenient STD.  Instead, in this film, Brandy "learns" how to give a hand-job... 

And so there you have it folks.  Parents the film is not the end of the world.  But it is kinda limited/lazy in its approach to resolving Brandy's age-old problem.

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Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Wolverine [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  RE.com (3 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
RogerEbert.com (Christy Lemire) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

The Wolverine [2013] (directed by James Mangold, screenplay by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank) continues / elaborates on the saga of currently the most popular of Marvel Comics' X-men characters that of Logan [IMDb] born James Hewlett aka the Wolverine [MC] (played in all six of the films depicting the character by Hugh Jackman).

The X-men series is fundamentally about society's and a gifted individual him/herself's dealing with one's "Individuality" / "Otherness."  Most of the main characters in the series are "mutants," people gifted (or cursed ...) generally from birth with very strange/exceptional abilities that set them apart from most other human beings.  What does one do with one's special gifts/abilities and how does one choose to relate to the rest of society?  And how does society react/relate to them?

So as the preceding film X-Men Origins: Wolverine [2009] explains, Logan aka The Wolverine [MC] born into a relatively wealthy Canadian family living in Alberta in the19th century, discovered as a child that his actual father was not the owner of the farm/estate on which he was born, but rather a stable-hand, part-Native American working on said estate.  From his biological father, he inherited a number of wonderous/strange abilities: (1) even at rest/in a dormant state he could relate exceptionally well with the animals of the wild, (2) in an agitated state he could grow sharp bony "wolverine-like" claws from between the knuckles of his hands with which he could slash enemies who attack him, and (3) he could heal quickly from just about any type of physical wound.  This last ability made him (or rendered him...) virtually immortal while his more animalistic special abilities made him a danger to the "more normal" (mortal) people who surrounded him in life.

So what would you do if you found yourself both for all practical purposes immortal and yet also a danger to those around you?  This then is Logan's / The Wolverine's [MC] great dilemma.

We find Logan at the beginning of this film in literally "holed-up" in a hole (in solitary confinement) in a Japanese Prisoner of War Camp across a bay from Nagasaki just as two American B-29 bombers approach (one of which, of course, carrying the atomic bomb which will destroy the city).  Perhaps sensing impending disaster, he calls over a Japanese guard (one who had previously shown him kindness?) and tells him to "jump in" into the pit with him.  The Japanese soldier initially resists not understanding why.  Logan, with the animal instincts of the Wolverine insists "Trust me on this." As we watch the rather large atomic bomb drop from one of the B-29s and toward the city, he simply pulls the Japanese soldier into the pit and just before the blast wave reaches them, he covers the Japanese soldier with his body (Logan/the Wolverine is capable of quickly recovering from any wound, so why not take-in some blast wave burns and radiation as well? :-).  In doing so of course, he saves the Japanese soldier's life.  Additionally, the Japanese soldier is stunned to see Logan / The Wolverine first horribly burned by the blast wave/radiation and then less than a minute later completely healed.  That's the kind of occurrence/memory that sticks with you ... ;-)

Flash forward to the present day.  Logan, always tormented by both his virtual immortality and hair-trigger/animalistic nature that makes him viciously lash-out (like a wolverine) at perceived enemies, has retired into the wilds of the Yukon territory of Canada where he spends most of his time living as a "half animal" and, more to the point, alone out there in the wilds with perhaps only bears as his friends (who seem to sense that he's "more the average human" and thus respect him ;-). 

After one of said bear friends had been killed by an "unsportsmanlike" sportsman (hunter) with a poisoned arrow, Logan saunters down from the wilds to a Yukon bar to confront the "unsportsmanlike" jerk who poisoned his friend.  (It would seem that for his very, very "gruff" exterior, Logan / the Wolverine has a keen sense of justice/fairness and gets very, very upset (lashes out ...) upon witnessing some injustice).

While meting out his sense of animalistic justice on the above-mentioned human who killed his bear friend, a young Japanese woman named Yukio (played by Rila Fukushima) with a very large / very, very sharp Samurai sword (that she knows how to use...) visits upon the same bar, looking for ... you guessed it ... the man who had saved her adopted grandfather, Yashida (played by Hal Yamanouchi), "back in the day" outside of Nagasaki on the day of the atomic bomb blast so many years ago.  Logan is told by Yukio that Yashida, had become a very rich Japanese industrialist after the War.  But now he was dying of cancer after reaching a ripe old age.  As his dying wish, Yashinda wanted to thank Logan for having saved him on that day and thus given him the opportunity to live such a long and fruitful life.

At first, Logan, ever weary of people didn't want to go with Yukio back to Japan, but "for old time's sake," he decides "why not?"  However, when he arrives back in Japan, quickly realizes that he's been sucked into a set of human intrigues (among them, who was going to succeed the dying patriarch?) that were clearly revolting to his much simpler Right / Wrong more animalistic instincts.  Much, of course, ensues ...

Throughout much of the remaining film, Logan / The Wolverine, seeks at least to protect a young woman  named Mariko (played by Tao Okamoto) who was a somewhat weak/sheltered grand-daughter of Yashida and had been designated by Yashida as his heir.  To his rather simple/animalistic/instinctual sense of right and wrong, this seemed to be the "right thing to do."  But even here things soon get very, very complicated... and very, very dangerous, as all kinds of shadowy forces want to do her (and soon enough Logan) harm.  

Who to trust?  Logan / The Wolverine, mutant, part human/part animal that he is, is almost always more worthy of trust than most human beings and is almost always disappointed by them, and not only by them but also by other mutants who he occasionally comes across.  By the end of the film (and really every story involving him) one understands why Logan / The Wolverine would generally prefer to keep largely to himself out in the wilds with perhaps "only a bear or two" as his friends.  The "simpler" animals seem more trustworthy than people or other (mutant) "intelligent" life forms.

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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Fruitvale Station [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  RE.com (4 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  PopMatters (8/10)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
PopMatters (C. Fuchs) review
RogerEbert.com (S. Boone) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Fruitvale Station [2013] (written and directed by Ryan Coogler) is a film that will almost certainly make you cry.  Winner of both the audience and the Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, it will almost certainly be a contender for any number of Academy Awards this year.

The film tells the story of the last day of the life of Oscar Grant (played in the film by Michael B. Jordan) a thoroughly average (and certainly not perfect) 22-year-old African-American man living in Oakland, CA with his girlfriend Sophina (played in the film by Melonie Diaz) and 4 year old daughter Tatiana (played in the film by Ariana Neal) and with a family -- mother (played stunningly in the film by Octavia Spencer) and a grandma (played in the film by Marjorie Shears) -- who loved him.  Oscar Grant was shot in the early morning hours of January 1, 2009 at the Fruitvale BART Station in Oakland, CA by BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle after an incident that occurred on one of the trains.  Grant died a few hours later at a local hospital.   The film ends with his funeral making only short reference to the trial/sentencing and (Bay Area) protests that followed Grant's death before, during and after the trial.

At the subsequent trial, the defense attorney for Mehserle, argued that he had shot Oscar Grant by accident, that he had instead sought to taze him, but in the heat of the moment mistakenly pulled out his revolver instead and shot him.  The incident was captured on video by numerous passengers of the stopped train using their cell phones after BART police (all apparently white/Hispanic) pulled several young men (all darker-skinned Hispanics / African Americans) from the train, and proceeded then to arrest them.  The confusion that the cell phone videos captured makes Mehserle's explanation plausible, but ...

... and in that "but" is, of course, the horror / tragedy.  In the criminal case of the shooting death of Oscar Grant, Johannes Meserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 2 years in prison.  Perhaps most upsetiting in the whole case was that Meserle's prison time was then reduced not merely by "time already served" in jail prior and during the trial but somewhat inexplicably by double the time already served.  As a result, Meserle served 292 days (less than one year) in jail for an incident that left Grant dead.  In subsequent Civil Action, the girlfriend of Oscar Grant settled with the BART Police Dept. on behalf of her/Oscar's daughter for $1.5 million. Grant's daughter will receive a series of payouts until her 30th birthday.

In isolation, Oscar Grant's story itself would be a horror.  Even after conceding the possibility and/or even the probability that the BART PD officer didn't mean to shoot Grant, Grant was nonetheless left dead as a result.

This, however, has not been the only time in which a young African American was left dead as a result of plausibly unintentional or even plausibly justified ("in the heat of the moment") deadly action on the part of a gun wielding non-African American, hence making the film all the more poignant / timely:

Oscar Grant's case bears more-or-less obvious resonances with the recent case of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida at the hands of a gun-wielding "neighborhood watchman" George Zimmerman (the defense argued that Zimmerman was plausibly acting in self-defense when he shot 17-year old Trayvon).  And since I lived in L.A. at the time, I remember the 1992 case of the shooting death 9-year old Latasha Harlins at the hands of a middle-aged Korean shop-owner Soon Ja Du who pointed a modified gun (making it easier to fire) at the 9-year-old believing her to be shoplifting when it (plausibly accidently) discharged resulting in the 9 year old's death.  (Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, however at sentencing was given only 5 years probation, 400 hours of community service and a $500 fine.  The laughably light sentence (no jail time at all despite a voluntary manslaughter conviction) exacerbated racial tensions in Los Angeles to a breaking point.  So when later in 1992 at the end of the Rodney King Trial, a jury composed of 11 whites and 1 latino (no blacks) acquitted three of four LAPD officers (and could not come to a verdict on the fourth) accused of beating African American Rodney King despite the presence of a videotape showing them doing so, the city of Los Angeles exploded in rioting.

Our justice system is built on giving the accused the benefit of the doubt.  Yet one ought to be able to understand the horror and anger of the African American community which sees the more or less obvious pattern and asks: "Why does 'the benefit of the doubt' leave YOUNG AFRICAN AMERICANS DEAD?  WHERE WAS THE 'BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT' FOR THEM?"  Then there's the almost laughable question: Where's the "benefit of the doubt" for young African American men accused of crimes? 

Could a young African American male get-off completely (as Zimmerman did) or get convicted of a much smaller crime (as the BART PD Officer Mehserle did) by pleading (1) "I was only acting in self-defense" (as Zimmerman pleaded in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin) or (2) "I didn't mean to shoot him" (as BART PD Officer Mehserle pleaded in the shooting death of Oscar Grant)?  And could one imagine any African American (or really ANYONE) of any age getting off with NO JAIL TIME even after a VOLUNTARY MANSLAUGHTER CONVICTION in the case of the DEATH OF A NINE YEAR OLD (as the Korean shop-owner Soon Ja Du was able to get-off with in the shooting death of 9-year old Latasha Harlins).

This then is the question and horror that Ryan Coogler's film poses: Do African Americans (especially young African American males) matter in this country?

A number of days after the conclusion of the trial of George Zimmerman, U.S. President Barack Obama, our nation's first black President, made a remarkable extended statement on the matter of race and the value of young African American men, noting above all that young African American boys need to believe that their country cares for them.

And a similarly remarkable CNN AC360 Town Hall Special "Race and Justice in America II" (aired July 23, 2013) featured among other things the personal testimony of a 30-something African American writer for CNN talking of her concerns for her 13 year old son and the kinds of heart-breaking "we want you to live" conversations that African American parents have had to have with their children over the generations.

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Saturday, July 20, 2013

RED 2 [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  RE.com (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars w. Expl.)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
RE.com (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Red 2 [2013] (directed by Dean Parisot, screenplay by Jon and Erich Hoeber, based on the characters of the graphic novels by Warren Ellis [IMDb] / Cully Hamner [IMDb] of DC Comics) follows the life of Frank Moses (played by Bruce Willis), a retired former CIA assassin, and his buddies.

Returning in this film are Sarah (played by Mary Louise Parker), Frank's girlfriend from the Kansas City U.S. Government Pension office, who Frank would find excuses to call at the beginning of the first film because he was so deathly bored with retirement; Marvin (played by John Malcovich) also former CIA, Frank's former partner, now really really paranoid after being experimented upon "for years and years, on a daily basis" in Cold War Era CIA-sposored LSD experiments, Victoria (played by Helen Mirren), MI5's best sniper "back in the day," a cold-hearted killer but remarkably good at handing out romantic advice when not having someone in her cross-hairs (or even if she had someone in her cross-hairs) and Ivan (played by Brian Cox), former KGB still apparently NSB, Victoria's lover back in the 60s ("I knew that she loved me when she shot me 2 inches from my heart ..." ;-) and basically the "good hearted guy" that you liked even if he "played for the other team."  (Morgan Freeman's Joe Matheson died at the end of the first installment...)

New additions to this story are Han Cho Bai (played by Byung-hun Lee) a Korean assassin "so lethal that he can kill with an oragami crane" (that characterization borrowed from the CNS/USCCB's reviewer McAlleer ;-), Bailey (played by Anthony Hopkins) a really wacked-out scientist who's spent the last 30 years in an MI5 "secret prison" inside an already maximum security London-area psycho-ward because "he knew too much..." and Katja (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) a über-sexy former Soviet now Russian counter-espionage agent and former flame of Frank's who upon the very first look poor, prior to meeting Frank, sheltered Kansas-born/raised Sarah just really, really despises. 

Needless to say, with characters with "back stories" such as these ... much, much ensues ;-)

Now both the CNS/USCCB's reviewer McAleer and RogerEbert.com's reviewer Henderson noted the often ridiculous amount of glass shattering (but little to no blood spilling) violence in this film.  RE.com's Henderson characterized the film as akin to a "Grand Theft Auto: Old Folks" video game (again, one must give credit to where credit is due ;-).  And I do appreciate the hypocrisy.  But the film-makers did tell a story that left indeed, still, much "to the imagination."  And one has to salute that too.  Plus, this is a film that I do think could be shown everywhere, including in Russia, without anyone feeling "Hey wait a minute, are they making fun of us again..."

So I give the movie a pass, EVEN IF I UNDERSTAND THE CRITICISM.  Yes, none of the characters, save perhaps Sarah (though she wants to be just like the others...) are exactly "good guys."  But even the characters seem to know who they are, and the film series may actually (through its portrayal of spies/assassins from all over) work to help viewers to see all people as potential friends rather than simply enemies forever.

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Friday, July 19, 2013

The Conjuring [2013]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  RE.com (1 Star)  AVClub (B+)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars with. Expl)

IMDB listing
CNS/USCCB (K. Jensen) review
RogerEbert.com (S. Adams) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

To be honest, I'm kinda sick of these movies.  That's not say that, The Conjuring [2013] (directed by James Wan, screenplay by Chad and Carey Hayes) is not, all things considered, one of the "better" movies about "things Demonic" to have come out in a while.  Yes, having seen it and reviewing it here now, I'd put it in the league of The Exorcist [1973] both in terms of presentation and historicity.  The case apparently was one taken-up by the husband and wife team of Ed and Lorraine Warren (played in the film by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), two Catholic lay people (who conducted their work with _some_ local Catholic Church approbation) who investigated such matters in New England in the 1960s-70s.

Having said this, however, I ask why put yourselves (and loved ones) through watching a film like this?  Either you believe that this kind of stuff can happen or you don't (I put myself in the first category, knowing "enough" to know that I DON'T KNOW "everything" and have I hope a healthy respect for both God, whom with every year I find myself honestly loving even clinging to more and more, and Evil, which I increasingly hope to avoid).  If you do believe in the possibility of this stuff, after a few films of this type, my guess is that many of you will start thinking like me, asking yourselves "Why another one of these kinds of films?"  And if you don't believe in the possibility of these things actually happening, well then ... this film, along with a countless number of others like it, are just a "carnival ride."

The one piece of advice that I got out of this film is simply: "Get your kid(s) baptized."  It would seem (and this would fit very well with Catholic theology on the matter) that if the family were all baptized, none of the awful things that were happening to them would have happened (or it would have been _much harder_ for the Evil to enter).  If you don't want to get baptized or have your kids baptized, I'm not Torquemada, I honestly respect your freedom, but well ... you've kinda chosen to be "on your own."  I'll pray for you, baptize you if you wish, bless your house if you wish ... but if you don't, well ... there we are ;-)

Okay then, what then is the story?  Set in the early 1970s, Roger and Carolyn Perron (played by Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor respectively) along with their five daughters Andrea (played by Shanley Caswell), Nancy (played by Hayley McFarland), Christine (played by Joey King), Cindy (played by Mackenzie Foy) and April (played by Kyla Deaver) move into a creepy-looking house by the water somewhere in rural Rhode Island.  A large family, they got the house "on the cheap" at a state auction (meaning it was foreclosed-upon/abandoned, no one wanted to live there...).

Well, they soon find out why... Indeed, their dog refuses to even enter the house.  They start hearing all sorts of cricks and cracks, and smell all kinds of strange, SULFUROUS smells at night.  Carolyn, the mother, starts waking up with all sorts of strange bruises across her body.  All the clocks in the house STOP EVERY NIGHT at exactly 3:07 AM.  One night, someone or something storms out of the house, smashing EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THE FAMILY'S PICTURES OF THEMSELVES AND THEIR KIDS that they had hung up along the staircase going up to their bed rooms.  Finally, bruised-up Carolyn's had enough.  Roger, a truck driver, was going to go away on a job down to Florida-and-back for a week.  Before he leaves, she looks up Ed and Lorraine Warren and begs them to come to their home to tell them what the heck is going on.

After doing some research on the property, it turns out that the house/property has had a long and sordid history.  Hearing the sordid/creepy history of the place, it really wouldn't surprise anyone but the most ardent of skeptics that this house/property could the kind of place that would house a fair number of really angry, evil and vengeful spirits.  The rest of the movie follows ...

The film ends showing pictures of the actual Ed and Lorraine Wilson as well as the family with their five kindergarten to teenaged daughters.  Yup, it plays out as one scary movie ...

Now honestly, just get the house blessed and everyone baptized ... ;-)

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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Turbo [2013]

MPAA (G)  CNS/USCCB (A-I)  RE.com (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
LaRaza (I. Tostado)* review
RogerEbert.com (M. Zoller-Seitz) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review 

While not perfect, Steven Spielberg founded Dreamworks' Turbo [2013] (directed and cowritten by Allen Soren along with Darren Lemke and Robert D. Siegel) points toward a much better way of making a fun children's film these days than some of its far more racist competitors (see my reviews of Despicable Me 2 [2013], Hop [2011], Hoodwinked Too [2011], Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick's Rules [2011]).  Again, the film is not perfect: For no particularly clear reason, Turbo's creators chose to make the film's chief villain of an easily identifiable ethnicity (something that will certainly confuse people and hurt the film's prospects outside of the the U.S. because this decision was more or less self-evidently gratuitous, as the film could have easily played out just as well, IMHO much better, without this needlessly stupid / problematic plot twist).  However, at least this is a film where parents of children of most (but, sigh, not all ...) ethnicities and complexions in this country will not be scratching their heads too much asking themselves: Hey wait a minute is this film trying to make fun of us and our kids?

So what's the film about?  Snails ;-)  Yes, snails, in particular about a snail who nicknames himself "Turbo" (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) who dreams of "going fast."  Part of a colony of snails living in and around a garden of a random house in a random subdivision in Southern California -- anyone who's spent some time in the Los Angeles area would probably notice after a while, especially at night "when the sprinklers go on" :-), how many snails there are out there -- "Turbo" would spend his evenings in the garage of said random house in said random subdivision in Southern California watching videos of auto-races on the TV that the owner of said random house in said random subdivision in SoCAL had set-up in said garage, dreaming that he (snail "Turbo") could "go fast!"

The rest of the snails in and around the garden thought, of course, that he's nuts.  Even his brother snail, Chet (voiced by Paul Giamatti), who spends much of his time defending his "dreamer" brother "Turbo," tries to tell him that though snails have many gifts, "fastness" is not one of them and to just accept it.  But "Turbo" of course, can not, slithering his way every so often from the property of said random house in random subdivision to the railing of a random overpass over the "101-Freeway" to watch the cars go by ... "fast."

Well one evening ... as he's standing there, attached to the railing of said random overpass over said 101-Freeway, something knocks him off of said railing and instinctively "ducking (into his shell) and rolling" he finds himself knocked about by the cars on the freeway until he finds himself knocked clear over and into the concrete ditch that is the L.A. River most of the year.  There he finds himself in front of the starting-line of what appears to be an (not altogether legal) drag race between two sets of teens/young adults in a couple souped-up race cars.  When the race starts, he gets sucked-up first onto the hood of one of those cars and then through its air intake into the engine where with contact with nitrogen oxide HE gets "supercharged" resulting ... after his being kicked-out through the exhaust of said car ... in him being "changed" and having the new/miraculous ability of being able to go ... very, very FAST! ;-)

His prayers have been answered, his dream has come true.  Now he finds himself being able to travel as fast as anybody/any car on the road ... being able go to faster than any snail had ever been able to go before.  All excited , the next day he tries to show his fellow snails what he can do, EXCEPT, of course, the other snails, stupified, just don't know how to respond ... Snails _just don't do that_ ... go fast ;-)

Indeed, discombobulated by his brother's sudden "fastness," Chet finds himself momentarily unaware of his surroundings ... and a GIANT CROW swoops down to pick him up and carry him away, presumably to eat him.  "Turbo" now super charged/super fast, follows said crow from the ground and is able to "be there" when Chet is accidently dropped from the sky by said GIANT CROW (who had found himself fighting with OTHER GIANT CROWS over the snail, Chet, he had in his claws and thus dropped him...) onto the parking lot of an(other) utterly random part of Los Angeles -- a random, corner strip mall, again somewhere in that gigantic city of largely concrete and steel.

There, after both Chet and Turbo catch their breaths, a random human, named Tito (voiced by Michael Peña) captures them under a glass ... and the second part of the story begins ;-).

Now Tito had his own story that we soon learn:  He was the younger brother of a two brother team, the other being Angelo (voiced by Luis Guzmán) running a small taco stand ("Two Bros. Tacos") out of said random corner strip mall somewhere in Southern California.  Except business was not going well.  Why?  Well, anyone who's ever spent sometime in Southern California knows that there are thousands and thousands and thousands of random corner strip malls JUST LIKE IT ... EVERYWHERE.  Even Tito's driving a "Taco truck" around the random streets of the random part of Los Angeles where they lived/worked with a GIANT PLASTIC TACO ATTACHED TO ITS ROOF to drum up business wasn't particularly doing so.  Still that didn't keep Tito from "dreaming" ...

Older brother Angelo, like snail Turbo's older brother Chet would kinda wish that Tito would "dream less" and "drive/sell tacos more..." but Tito was Tito.  And he so he'd dream and do all sorts of other seemingly utterly impractical things that he connected with those dreams believing that somehow, someday, something's gonna work and the two bros (he wasn't dreaming just for himself but for his brother and indeed for his other random corner strip mall friends) would succeed.

Well, one of the utterly impractical things that Tito would do is ... hold evening "snail races" in back of the corner strip mall ;-).  And suddenly out of nowhere, dropped-out of the sky/arrived on the pavement of his random, corner strip mall a snail that's ... REALLY, REALLY, INDEED, UNBELIEVABLY ... FAST ;-)

Now, interestingly enough, this is not to say that the other snails -- Whiplash (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson), Smooth Move (voiced by Snoop Dogg), Burn (voiced by Maya Rudolph), Skid Mark (voiced by Ben Schwartz) and White Shadow (voiced by Mike Bell) -- that Tito's collected "over the years" didn't find their own, often very inventive ways of being fast.  It's just that, as Whiplash himself soon sees, Turbo's got "the skills to pay the bills, that's if snails had bills to pay that is." ;-).  Turbo's new magical ability appears capable of changing EVERYTHING for EVERYBODY.

Initially, Tito appears content to just race Turbo that at the random corner strip-mall (that no one goes to...).  However, Turbo himself convinces him by circling a billboard sign by the random strip-mall of "Indy-500 champion" Guy Gagné (voiced in the film by Bill Hader) to try to enter him into the Indy-500.

So Tito loads up his/Angelo's Taco truck with his snails, as well as with his random corner strip mall shopkeeper companions -- Paz (voiced by Michelle Rodriguez) owner of a garage, Kim Ly (voiced by Ken Jeong) owner of a "nail salon", and Bobby (voiced by Richard Jenkins) owner of a toy/modeling shop that no one goes to -- and they ALL head-off to Indianapolis ... to meet their destiny (all actually except for Angelo, who stays at random largely unpatronized corner strip mall "in case business would pick-up...."  Much ensues ... and as a result of all that does ensue ... by the end, "business" REALLY DOES "pick-up" and DRAMATICALLY SO at their previously largely unpatronized, random corner strip mall back in a previously random part L.A ;-).

So as Michael Peña who was born and grew-up in Chicago's "little village" barrio "dreaming," the film's about friends, family and never ever giving-up on your dreams.* 

Again, with the single exception of the needless/stupid insertion of a "villain" into the film near its end (the film really didn't need one... and it needlessly hurts an entire language group across the planet) WHAT A LOVELY, LOVELY STORY ;-)

* Foreign (in this case Spanish) language links are generally most easily (machine) translated using Google's Chrome browser. 

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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Pacific Rim [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III) RE.com (4 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J.P. McCarthy) review
RogerEbert.com (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Pacific Rim [2013] (director by Guillermo del Toro [IMDb] screenplay by Travis Beacham and Guillermo del Toro, story by Travis Beacham) must have been an irresistable project for an auteur like Guillermo del Toro [IMDb].  Envisioned for the biggest of screens, at it's core, the film is basically a "mash-up" of 1950s era Japanese Godzilla [IMDb] movies and more recent Japanese inspired Transformers [IMDb] movies.  Central to both story-lines are ENORMOUS Monsters (one class mutant/biological, the other robotic) capable of raining down ENORMOUS amounts of destruction on puny/bug-like human beings in comparison.

Now that kind of a storyline OUGHT to be at least partly unsettling.  And IMHO, J.P. McCarthy, the CNS/USCCB's reviewer of the film laudably if then only partially makes reference to the genre's "blind spot" of never really giving proper due to the presumed level of human suffering caused by the city shattering destruction depicted in these films (at the hands of the films' "Monsters") prior to "someone or something saving the day."  It's a laudable point and we can ask ourselves how many times will we see the White House blown-up (Olympus Has Fallen [2013], White House Down [2013]) or 9/11 cinematically re-enacted (Sucker Punch [2011], Star Trek: Into Darkness [2013] among others) before we'll be able to let these cataclysmic images/anxieties go?  Yet, it has been also said that the Godzilla story actually originated as a post-WW II Japanese cultural expression of its experience of the enormously destructive Allied bombing raids in the final stages of the War, raids that even before the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had leveled and incinerated entire Japanese cities.  The atomic bombs added mutation producing radiation to the cultural anxiety mix.  And the 2011 post-tsunami meltdowns of 4 nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on the banks of the Pacific Ocean will probably continue to fuel a fair amount of anxiety into the future. 

Yet even as we can fairly wonder why seem to enjoy/flock to movies depicting "Monsters" crushing people like us like "bugs," the challenge of the "auteur" like Guillermo del Toro [IMDb] (or Ridley Scott [IMDb]/ James Cameron [IMDb]) is to turn a sci-fi-ish "Monsters/Aliens attack" story (Alien [1979], The Terminator [1984]) into "something more." 

It is obvious that part of Guillermo del Toro / Travis Beacham's vision in this film is that the humanity threatening Godzilla-sized monsters called "Kieji" (or "monster" in Japanese) materializing in the depths of the Pacific Ocean after passing through some sort of an "interdimensional portal" located there (presumably at or near the fissure of the Mariana Trench) are best defeated through cooperation:  (1) All the nations of the world / Pacific Rim join together to fight these horrendous city destroying aliens, and (2) even the "weapons of choice" to fight these aliens -- Giant, human driven Transformer-like robots called Jaegers (or "hunters" in German) -- require two people, neurally connected to the robot and to each other (serving as the robot's right and left "brains"),  to successfully operate them.  The Monsters and even the "weapons systems" (Jaegers) designed to combat them are simply too big for a _single person_ to defeat them.  Coordinated / collaborative action is required.

The film then explores various types of "two person teams" employed to drive the "Jaeger robots" in order to fight the monsters.  There are two identical twin brothers Raleigh and Yancy Becket (played by Charlie Hunnam and Diego Klattenhoff respectively), there's a father and son team of Herc and Chuck Hensen (played by Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky respectively).  Late in the film, after one or another of the "team members" has been killed or incapacitated, there's a "male/female" (spousal/Jungian? ;-) team assembled featuring Raleigh Becket and an Asian woman named Mako Mori (played who Rinko Kikuchi) who had lost her parents to the monsters as a child and a team of "old timers/veterans" comprising of Herc Hensen and the by the book commander of the whole Jaeger operation Stacker Pentecost (played by Idris Elba).

Each of these two person combinations offered possible advantages and disadvantages with the "neural connection" between each other and the robot they were required to drive).  Additionally there was also a two person team of scientists/advisors, Dr. Newton Geiszler and Gottlieb (played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman respectively) who offered the Jaeger commanders/operators differing perspectives on how to combat the Kieji.  At one point, Dr. Geiszler also found himself having to enlist the help of an utterly non-scientific Hong-Kong area mobster named Hannibal Chao (played by Ron Perlman) for critical (and somewhat surprising) assistance as well.

All this cooperation was required to defeat the monstrous Keiji, who despite being "monsters" Dr. Geiszler and Gottlieb discovered were also working together and learning from each other in how to attack and defeat us.

So in the underneath of this Titanic battle between Humanity and "Monsters" bent on destroying us is this story about cooperation with the message that our biggest threats can only be "defeated" if we work together.  We may be individuals with individual gifts but as humanity, we are also to be a team.

That's a message not altogether far afield from that of the Catholic Church that sees all of us as children of the same God who loves us all.  Ultimately, we too understand that "we're all in this project of Life together."  Still, one has to question the story's over-the-top glass smashing, indeed skyscraper/skyline smashing violence ...

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The Way, Way Back [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  RE.com (3 Stars)  AVClub (C+)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
RogerEbert.com (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

The Way, Way Back [2013] (written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rush) is a well acted if often horribly painful "indie piece" with some relatively well known actors about a 14 year old boy named Duncan (played by Liam James) a child of a recent divorce going through (one certainly hopes...) the worst summer of his life. 

The film begins with quiet, overwhelmed, sad Duncan with ultra-hunched shoulders sitting in the very back of a station wagon being driven by Trent (played by Steve Carell), his mother Pam (played by Toni Collette)'s new boyfriend, to his summer beach-front cottage presumably somewhere in the American North East.  Also in the car is Trent's later-teenage daughter Steph (played by Zoe Levin), a few significant years older than Duncan.

The scene feels like a drive to a sunny if utterly-fake-smiley Hell.  Keep in mind the scene's geography:  Who's "in the driver's seat?" (Trent).  Who's sitting next to him? (Duncan's still clearly shell-shocked from her recent divorce but making her first if still horribly wrong steps to "move on" mother).  Who's in next seat behind them?  (Trent's daughter Steph, who may not be particularly happy that her father's taking his new stressed-out if apparently grateful girlfriend along her dweebish, boneless and presently utterly unrelatable son Duncan with them to their annual summer vacation spot, BUT AT LEAST SHE KNOWS THE PLACE AND HAS HER FRIENDS THERE).  Finally, who's sitting way in the very back almost among the luggage?  (Sad, sullen Duncan, who at the beginning of the film could have been a candidate for a total break-down).  As they drive to Trent and his daughter's vacation spot, Trent tries to make conversation, but everything he says inevitably turns into a put-down.  Even he doesn't seem to have a clue of what he's getting everybody into.

So why is "Vacation in Hell" this happening?  My sense is because Trent is an "A-personality" and though he may not be utterly evil, he simply did not realize that Pam (who he apparently met when she was catering some random business function - a "regional company salesrep meeting" - that he was part of) and her son are simply NOT READY FOR THIS YET.

Pam's husband had abandoned her and Duncan about a year before for a much younger woman and was setting-up his new life way across the country in San Diego.  Yes, Pam resisted Trent's overtures for about 4-6 months after said "random business meeting" (where she served as a caterer) where they met.  However, Trent was apparently THE FIRST GUY that she had consented to go-out with following her traumatic divorce and now, a only few months after that first date, they were all going to HIS COTTAGE at HIS YEARLY VACATION SPOT with HIS DAUGHTER to be surrounded by HIS FRIENDS / ACQUAINTANCES and there'd be NO EASY ESCAPE for either HER or HER SON if ANYTHING "went wrong."

They arrive ...

The next act is exactly as one would expect given the setup above.  Trent and his daughter are welcomed by chatty long-time friends/acquaintances who don't treat Pam and Duncan badly, per se, they just don't know them, while they have years and years of history with Trent and Steff.  Steff runs off to the beach to be with her summer-time friends, Pam's inundated by nosy and randy moms, the most important of which are Betty (played by Alison Janney) and Joan (played by Amanda Peet), some divorced others married, pretty much all of whom regard Trent as something of a catch and wonder if Pam's really "in his league."  Duncan, poor Duncan, just wants to sink into the ground...

But Duncan soon finds a couple of saving graces.  First, he finds a bicycle.  Okay, it's little pink girls' bike, a bike for a 10 year old girl ... BUT IT'S A BIKE / A WAY OUT ... He can get "away" from the beach house row where he was previously trapped in a situation utterly outside his control to explore whatever else would be "in town."  And then there's Suzanna (played by AnnaSophia Robb) daughter of divorced neighbor ever-chatty Betty who's maybe a year older than Duncan and has already gone through her parents' divorce.  With time, she inevitably begins to be a friend.  But initially there is the awful but at least AVAILABLE bike that gives Duncan a way to "get away" from an otherwise overwhelming, bordering on unbearable, situation.

Where does Duncan go?  He rides his bike clear to the (other) edge of town where there's a "water park."  In generations past, the "water park" would have been a "carnival" ...  There among "the carnies" historically seen as "misfits of life" themselves (the most important of which in this film are played by Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolf and one of the film's writers/directors Nat Faxon himself) he finds some mentor figures and friends.  And THANKS TO THEM, life becomes bearable again.

Much still ensues ... but honestly, one can not but empathize with Duncan, his also overwhelmed mother Pam, and even perhaps, after some longer reflection (stupid as he was...) ... with Trent.  Portrayed here was really a nightmarish "vacation" ... and yet, hopefully EVERYONE grew a little bit as a result.

Wow.  So who to recommend this film to? ;-).  People with some distance from the situation (recent divorce) at hand.  Even though there are lot of comics in this film, this is _not_ exactly a funny movie.  And even though the film is rated PG-13 and in a strict sense meets the traditional criteria for such a rating, I wouldn't want to inflict this film on any teenager (except perhaps as an apology for past incomprehension of what they were going through during a family crisis).  This film is certainly well acted, but it is at times VERY, VERY, ALMOST UNBEARABLY SAD.

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Friday, July 12, 2013

A Hijacking (orig. Kapringen) [2012]

MPAA (R)  RE.com (3 1/2 stars)  AVClub (B+)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
RogerEbert.com (O. Collette) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

A Hijacking (orig. Kapringen) [2012] (written and directed by Tobias Lindholm) is a critically acclaimed /  award winning Danish thoroughly excruciating yet strikingly "actionless" psycho-thriller about a hijacking of a Danish freighter by Somali pirates somewhere in the Northern Indian Ocean presumably somewhere reasonably near Somalia and then the often tense negotiations between "Omar" (played by Abdihakin Asgar) leading or at least negotiating on behalf of the pirates from on-board the hijacked ship and Peter C. Ludvigsen (played by Søren Malling) the C.E.O. of the Danish shipping company stationed back at the company's headquarters in Copenhagen. 

Viewers who like a good story could be fascinated by writer/director Lindholm's storytelling here.  Even the hijacking itself takes place "off camera" ;-).  We're simply introduced at the beginning of the film to (1) some of the ship's crew from the ship, notably the ship's cook Mikkel Hartmann (played by Pilou Asbæk) calling his wife back in Denmark on the ship's phone on what could only have been a very average mid-morning while out at sea (Indeed, the phone call ends in something of "a spat" as Mikkel tells her that he might be delayed a few days, hence having to miss an birthday or anniversary, after the ship arrives in Mumbai prior to returning to Denmark) and (2) to the some of the staff, including the company's CEO back in Denmark going about their day-to-day business of managing an international shipping company. 

Sometime in the afternoon of that very average day, CEO Peter Ludvigsen is given the news that the company has lost contact with one of their ships, Mikkel's, that was traversing at the time the Northern Indian Ocean.  And it appeared from the Captain's (played by Keith Pearson) last transmission (basically a voice mail, nobody at HQ had picked-up the phone) that the ship was being approached by some high speed boats manned by (presumably) Somali pirates.  Subsequent attempts by HQ to make contact with the ship or its captain had failed, though the assumption was that the ship had not been sunk but rather that, probably, it had been hijacked and its crew taken hostage.

What to do?  Well, the Company begins to assemble a crisis/hostage negotiations team, and ... wait until the Pirates themselves make contact.  Now why would the Pirates do that ... make contact?  Well, as Conner Julian (played by Gary Skjoldmose Porter) an English speaking arguably semi-mercenary "security consultant" brought in to help the firm understand what it is dealing with, explains:

On the "plus side" these kind of Pirates would really have little interest in damaging the ship or _going out of their way_ to hurt the crew (though they would certainly not be a particularly "disciplined group" so "accidents" could very well happen...) as both the ship and the crew served as bargaining chips for them.  The Pirates would be primarily interested in money. 

On the "minus side," simply giving in to the Pirates' initial demands would only result in them "upping their ransom demand" to extract even more money.  So one is going to have to recognize that this is going to be a protracted negotiation regardless of what the company does (hence the Company and its negotiating team will have to keep cool heads).  Further, "time is a western concept" and will mean nothing to the Pirates.  "Even when they run out of food on the ship, the Pirates will simply bring goats on-board to slaughter and eat."  The only thing that will bring the hostage situation to an end will be when the Pirates become convinced that they really won't be able to extract any more money from the Company beyond whatever amount it has offered to give them.  So what's being talked about is an extended yet very high stakes financial negotiation.

To this end, the "security consultant" suggests that the Company hire an experienced outside negotiator to represent the firm in its negotiations with the pirates.  At this suggestion, CEO who sees himself as an expert negotiator (after all he's running a company) balks.  Perhaps he's even worried that if he ceded the negotiations to an outsider, that his Company's Board would fire _him_ as, honestly, what good would he be to them...?  The "security consultant" concedes the point.  After all, he's been brought in to give advice, but the final say has to be that of the Company's CEO (after all, that's his job).  However the "security consultant" tell him that he's in for a negotiation unlike any that he's ever been in and that _any_ mistake could cost lives.  (Yes, when cool heads are prevailing, it's to the best interests of the Pirates themselves to treat the hostage crew well, BUT "cool heads" don't always prevail in tense negotiations...)

So this then is the set-up to the story.  Sure enough, after a sufficiently long period of time to make their "power" felt, "Omar" (clearly the best educated and apparently the only English speaking person from among the otherwise only Somali-speaking but all AK-47 toting Pirates) calls the Danish shipping company's HQ on the ship's phone to re-establish contact ... and the negotiating begins.  What follows is one heck of a movie ...

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Spirited Away (orig. Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi) [2001]

MPAA (PG)   Roger Ebert (4 Stars)   Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert review

Spirited Away (orig. Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi) [2001] (written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki [IMDb]) a classic animated film from Japan's famed Studio Ghibli played recently (in both dubbed and subtitled format) in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of its 2013 Studio Ghibli Returns retrospective.  This film along with many of the others being presented in the series can be found / streamed (in dubbed English format) for FREE on watchcartoononline.com.   For readers here interested in East Asian history/comparative mythology, the film's worth the viewing.

The film takes place in the recent past in the context of the Japan's slow economic recovery following its 1990 crash and subsequent "lost decade."  For a number of decades prior to 1990, Japan's economy was one of the best performing/fastest growing in the world.  However as is often the case, this period of growth was followed by a crash.  Apparently (and again as often happens) the growth that Japan experienced in the latter years of this economic expansion had been an unsustainable "bubble" that needed to collapse so that the economy could return to reality.

Very well, the film begins with 10 year old Chihiro (voiced in the English version by Daveigh Chase) sitting in the back of her parents' car as they (voiced in the English version by Michael Chiklis and Lauren Holly respectively) as they drive to their new home.  The economic crisis had forced them to relocate and it it's clear that Chihiro was not particularly happy with it, holding on to a goodbye-card from a friend who she was no longer going to be able to see.  In the card, her friend wrote "I'm going to miss you" and it's clear that she's miss her too.  Knowing that this was not an ideal situation for her, Chihiro's parents nevertheless tell her that moving/change/saying good-bye is "part of life" and assure her that soon enough she's going to make new friends at her new school...

As they approach their new house, still kinda nice in a hilly outlying/suburban subdivision, Chihiro's father "makes a wrong turn."  They find themselves on a dirt rather than paved road, below their new house that they can still see up higher across a meadowed slope.  The father insists that the dirt road must lead-up to it somehow since they are "so close."  So they keep on it.  But the dirt road ends in a somewhat overgrown parking lot and an imposing gate-house that both "looks old" and yet the father quickly recognizes to be "made of plaster" (recent/"fake" yet made to look old).

Though not where they want to be, nevertheless the father finds himself intrigued.  Initially, the mother's somewhat worried that the movers might arrive at their new house before they do, but the father tells her that the movers have a key anyway and could start unloading without them.  The only one who really doesn't want to enter is Chihiro herself who tells her parents, "this place gives me the creeps."   Still dad wants to go in, ma's not opposed and so their kid must follow ...

They enter the gate house, the entrance leading to a tunnel which empties out into a field (though facing in a different direction than that of their house because they no longer see it after they leave the tunnel).  At the other end of the field appears to be what the father identifies as "one of those amusement parks that they were building all over the place in the '90s but were never completed."  So it appears to be a "ghost" amusement park ;-).

Dad still wants to investigate.  So they trudge to the "amusement parky" buildings and then to their surprise ... mom and dad smell food.  Chihiro by now really wants to go home but ma and dad, look for the place where the food's being made and find a stand with all kinds of freshly made food but no one around.  So ma and dad decide to help themselves... 

Chihiro bored, decides to walk-off a bit while ma and dad take food that doesn't really belong to them.  When she returns, apparently she walked around for some time, it's already starting to get dark and she finds that her parents, still at the stand with the food had turned into pigs!  (Apparently, they spent a bit too much time "stuffing themselves at the troth..." ;-).

What to do now?  It's getting dark, they're kinda far from where they've left their car, and besides ma' and dad have "turned into swine" ;-).  Now with it getting dark, the amusement park is starting to lively with all kinds of not particularly nice looking "spirits" arriving/materializing from all over.  Needless to say Chihiro's getting scared....

One of those Spirits, that of a boy, maybe a year or two older then Chihiro comes over to talk to her.  He identifies himself as Haku (voiced in the English version by ) and tells her that she's going to have to hide from the Spirits as they generally don't like human beings and that she's going to have to go down to the amusement park's boiler room and beg for a job because unless she quickly gets a job, it will not go well with her and the Spirits who tend to "consume" those who don't work for them.  Her parents are already converted into pigs and will be eventually eaten.  A similar fate will await her ... unless she gets a job.

So Chihiro then sneaks her way down various steps and corridors until she gets down to the boiler room where she meets a spiderlike boiler operator (with 8 arms all busy pulling levers and such) named Kamajii (voiced in the English version by David Ogden Stiers).  He introduces her to another servant spirit named Lin (voiced in the English version Susan Egan) and instructs her to go see a Woman spirit "on top" named Yubaba (voiced in the English version by Susanne Plechette) who runs the whole amusement park operation.

Chihiro goes up to talk to Yubaba and gets a job, the lousiest possible one -- cleaning up after some really dirty Spirits in the (Japanese) bathhouse of the amusement park.  She also gets the job at the expense of signing away her own name. Yubaba renames her "Sen," but at least little Chihiro has a job, hence "has a purpose" in the ghostly, arguably Hellish "amusement park" and can slowly work on plotting her escape and even on saving her parents who've by then been relocated to the pig pen where the other porkers are fattened up prior to inevitable slaughter to feed the hungry and generally consuming spirits.

She also gets occasional help by a masked yet generally sympathetic spirit, that, since he does not talk and never takes off his mask she comes to call "No Face."

Having setup the story, much now ensues ...

The film has been characterized as a late-20th century Alice in Wonderland.  I'd compare it also to the Wizard of Oz [1939] [IMDb] yet expressed in traditional Japanese folklore/imagery.  It's clearly a story of a little girl being forced to "grow-up" more quickly, taking more responsibility for her life (and even for her parents' lives) than perhaps she should.

I found the film fascinating and along with other films presented in the Studio Ghibli retrospective presented at the Gene Siskel Film Center a window into a culture that I otherwise would not have known much about.

I WOULDN'T necessarily recommend the film to young kids.  However, older teens and adults interested in East Asian history/folklore/mythology would probably found the film as fascinating as I did.  And again, the film along with others in the GSFC's retrospective can be found watchcartoononline.com.

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